The Mookse and the Gripes discussion

The Red Word
This topic is about The Red Word
Republic of Consciousness Prize > 2020 RoC longlist: The Red Word

Comments Showing 1-48 of 48 (48 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by Paul (last edited Jan 25, 2020 12:24PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (Tramp Press)

From the judges:

First published in the 2018 in Canada, The Red Word won the prestigious Governor General’s Award. A punchy and provocative novel set on a US Ivy League campus in the 90s which blends Greek myth with a tale of two warring campus houses. A politically charged and timely book which tackles rape culture and gender wars with nuance and complexity.

message 2: by Paul (last edited Jan 25, 2020 12:26PM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Gumble's successful tip for the longlist.

Won a major national book award in Canada where the judges said:

Groundbreaking and provocative, this is an astonishing evisceration of the clichés of sexual politics as they exist not only on our college campuses, but also within broader present-day society. Alternately heartbreaking, funny, and critical, no one gets off easily. The Red Word plumbs the depths of literature, mythology, history, philosophy, and a host of contemporary issues — an utterly effing good read,

Robert | 1970 comments My review:

Loads of Secret History vibes but - this more socially aware

message 4: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Tommi's review posted today also makes the Secret History comparison.

Not a book I've read - what's the connection?

Neil | 1858 comments Campus setting, idolising a teacher, lots of drugs, unlikeable characters...

But a very different topic.

Although it is many years since I read Secret History so I have slightly dodgy memories.

message 6: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Thanks

Neil | 1858 comments I've just finished this. My review is here:

In it, I've tried to briefly explain my confusion about its messaging and structure. I hope that the discussion here will help me.

message 8: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Do these single-sex fraternities with Greek letter names actually exist nowadays? I had always naively assumed it was largely the domain of Hollywood movies.

message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments But that is mostly historic references - I meant more now in the 21st century. (albeit most of this book is set 15-20 years ago I think)

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5232 comments Need someone from the US to comment but a quick Google seems to imply this is still a real thing.

message 12: by peg (new) - rated it 4 stars

peg | 133 comments Since I doubt that anybody really familiar with fraternity life is a follower here I will answer that from what I see on the news they are very much still present, though the trouble seems to be the frat’s “hazing parties” where new pledges are forced to drink an insane amount. My own state university seems to have a couple deaths each year resulting from drunken accidents or alcohol poisoning.

They seem to have wised up and realized the sex parties are a sure way to get in trouble with the legal system so seem to have gotten away from that route! (Or maybe have guests sign consent forms).

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments I think similar goes on in UK but more confined to sports societies. Although very much under pressure - and not single-sex (is it actually legal to have fraternities/sororities that gender discriminate ?)

(best I don't start on my views on sports societies at university for people who aren't doing sports degrees)

message 14: by Ella (last edited Feb 05, 2020 07:21AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
I'll add to peg's astute comment on hazing. (mind you, I was never at a school that had any Greek life.)

Another troubling aspect seems to be that all women, but especially brand new freshmen women get invited to these frat parties and rape seems to be a feature. In recent years many schools have shut down one or even all of their fraternities after terrible sexual assaults. But it doesn't happen often enough according to many women. I'd have to google for stories, but I'm pretty sure a decent google search will find many examples.

However, this is not a new thing, despite the new label on it these days (and the fact that people seem to be taking the women a little bit more seriously.) "In my day" there was something called "Take Back The Night." You may remember it! However, TBtN was not just about greek life - it was about women being safe, both on and off campus (first at night, but apparently that grew into "generally safe.")

The earliest TBtN marches were held in the 1970s, and they are at least partially - or tangentially - responsible for the many "blue light phone" schemes on university campuses and they are now an organized group, whereas when I was a student, as far as I know, they were just marches.

I've not read the book yet -- I plan to, but reading a couple of posts leads me to believe that militant feminism is part of it. This reminded me how how militant parts of second wave feminism were.

I only say all of this b/c I get a bit tired of hearing from "the news" that this is the first time women have spoken up about sexual violence.

I have no clue if that relates to the book, but putting together the blurb w/ my personal knowledge, this is what I got.

ETA: Paul asks " (is it actually legal to have fraternities/sororities that gender discriminate ?)"

In the US it sure is. Despite many laws, this country loves to separate people as much as possible as often as possible.

Also - I lied. I am a member of a black woman's sorority, but my campuses never had an actual house, so it's more like an honorary thing. And of course, there are academic ones too - also not the same. So I suppose on some bizarre level, I've "been a part" though not really.

message 15: by Paul (last edited Feb 05, 2020 08:06AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments I think this is 3rd wave feminism and mid 90s. (timeline is also about 5 years earlier than I had suggested). This from author may help:

49th Shelf: And speaking of time, can you talk about the significance of your novel being set in the 1990s? Also, what narrative opportunities and challenges did that period offer you? How would the novel be different if it were set in the present?

Sarah Henstra: From the start I conceived of this story as a set of events that leaves a lasting and traumatic mark on the novel’s narrator, Karen—so much so that she is compelled to re-visit them, to re-tell the story for herself, fifteen years later (in 2010, when she’s in her mid-30s). In that “present-day” frame, Karen’s long-term relationship has failed and she’s feeling stuck and uninspired in her career; in many respects the past is more lively and real to her than the present. She needs to go back and pick through the wreckage of her college years in order to salvage what was important and let go of the rest, including her own lingering sense of culpability and guilt.

The 1990s was a time when third-wave feminism took academia by storm. Identity politics, feminist critical theory in the classroom, and grass-roots student activism campaigns made college a heady and exciting place for young women who found their professors and fellow students engaging in very different conversations than they’d been exposed to at home or in high school. I suspect going off to college feels like this in every era—like discovering a brand-new world—but the 1990s was my undergraduate era, and part of the pleasure for me in writing this story was to (re)create, through memory and period detail, that historical moment.

message 16: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Googling third wave has sent me on a click trail through go the Riot grrrl movement (not sure yet if that is in the book) and one of my favourite music videos - Kathleen Hanna, founder of Bikini Kill, in Sonic Youth's Bull in the Heather ( which links to the much discussed autobipgraphy Girl in a Band.

message 17: by Ella (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
Ahhh - yes. So I fall between the waves and I'm constantly confused about what to think ;-)

Paul - Ahhh, Bikini Kill -- Rebel Girl!

But - yes, I missed the 1990s campus activities etc, though clearly I've now read loads about all of this. Though I'm still confused as to which wave we're in now and I'll admit to not completely taking much of it seriously until I wanted to get paid as much as I'm worth. Then it was less about the movement and more about brass tacks for me.

message 18: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments I would have to admit to only having come across the second wave, third wave type terms when I read this book.

And perhaps not taking feminism sufficiently seriously until I had three daughters either.

carissa | 98 comments Yes, the Greek system is very much intact in the USA. Things that happened in this book were known to exist and occur during my college days. One house was closed (temporarily) for exactly what happened in this book. I dated a brother (won't name the house) and we were "tagged", in the book. (Although, I didn't know this until later.)
I spoke to a young co-worker and things have not changed all that much in the Frat/Soror systems. They are in it for life. Pretty strange to observe from the outside.

message 20: by Neil (last edited Feb 05, 2020 11:42PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Neil | 1858 comments This relates to one of the things that disappointed me in this book. It sets up a storyline in the 1990s and another in the "present" (which I think is still some time back from where we are now), but then nothing happens to bring the topics raised in the 1990s into the "present" - I can't see why that storyline is there at all.

I thought that it would be something like "see the misogyny in the ancient mythology, see how it runs through into 1990s fraternities and then see that it is still ongoing now", but the "now" bit turned into "I went to a conference and gave a presentation where I met someone I used to know".

I'm watching this thread closely as I am hoping someone is going to show me how I have misread it.

message 21: by Ella (last edited Feb 05, 2020 11:58PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
My library notices say I can pick it up (which is odd - could've sworn I'd put an ebook on hold) in a day or so.

carissa wrote: "Yes, the Greek system is very much intact in the USA. Things that happened in this book were known to exist and occur during my college days. One house was closed (temporarily) for exactly what hap..."

It is an odd and troubling system, and you're so right: it's bizarre to watch from the outside and/or with some distance.

message 22: by Neil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Neil | 1858 comments The more I think about this book, the more confused I get. In my review, I raised questions about its main message which seems to start off vilifying the fraternity boys and end up sympathising with them and condemning the women.

I am keen to hear the thoughts of others on this.

message 23: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments I am completely befuddled.

I agree the 2010 bit seems to have no purpose or link (if one if male characters had reappeared it could have served a purpose).

The fraternities are Greek so let’s chuck in some classics seemed bolted on.

The plot is implausible in the sense that the women’s plan was obviously going to backfire.

And yes the main message seems to be how misunderstood poor frat boys are.

message 24: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia | 2630 comments Paul wrote: "The fraternities are Greek so let’s chuck in some classics seemed bolted on. "

That's probably because it's referencing The Secret History and the students in that are classicists.

Ella wrote: "Though I'm still confused as to which wave we're in now."

Yeah. The current movement seems distinct enough from third wave on a number of issues including the sex-positive and postfeminist trends that were a big part of 90s feminism, as well as the importance of online and intersectionality, that it would seem very legit to call it a 4th wave, and I did see that used sometimes 5+ years ago. But "4th wave now" is the name of a group for gender critical/ terf parents and the term is visible mostly because of, and therefore associated with, them. I would guess academics will eventually call this a fourth wave but it is not really in current usage as far as I've seen.

message 25: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments This I think would be the author’s argument for what she is doing:

“The female students in The Red Word cross a line and go way too far in their campaign to expose the sexual misbehaviour of the fraternity. But the novel asks readers to consider what it means to go “way too far” in a context where female sexual identity and desire is so tightly policed and constrained. For example, the women are already going “too far” by entering the frat house in the first place, because there is no place—ever—for a “dyke” at a frat party.”

Although the “way too far” is one thing, it is still why they ever expected it to work in the first place. The novel seems to rely on a scenario (actually more than one) designed by the author to go wrong for dramatic effect.

message 26: by Neil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Neil | 1858 comments Ok - that makes sense. As you say, though, for the book to make you really question what “way too far” means, it needs to be plausible. Otherwise, the attention moves away from that question and focuses on the implausibility.

carissa | 98 comments I was actually hopeful when we are told about the actual rape of a Townie. I thought the author was going to surprise me and make it about the Feminist's group-member's privilege being as heinous a moral failing as the Frat Rat's run-of-the-mill misogyny, but nope.

It felt like at each turn the author dropped where she was headed and went onto the next plot-twist rather than fleshing out any one of the many lessons she was trying to teach us.

I did feel this was a very finger-pointy-message book, but never actually got a firm message across. Which is why I rated it so low, because that's just an annoying waste of reading-time.

message 28: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments I like that description; a very finger-pointy-message book, but never actually got a firm message across.

message 29: by Neil (new) - rated it 2 stars

Neil | 1858 comments "Finger-pointy-message book"! I've stored that one away for future use!

message 30: by WndyJW (new)

WndyJW | 4583 comments Another book that does not sound worth reading.

I lived in a sorority house my freshman year. I was not in a sorority, but the sorority had to rent the rooms upstairs to the university to make their mortgage. We were never allowed in the basement, or the first floor during their meetings and odd rituals. One ritual involved all the sisters standing in a circle around the rubber tree in the foyer (you’ll not be surprised to hear that every spring the tree “blossomed” with condoms. Hilarious, right?) passing a candle around, if a girl was given a necklace by a frat boy the lucky girl blew the candle out the first time it came to her, if she given his fraternity pin she blew the candle out the 2nd time it came to her, if she was given a ring she blew it out the 3rd time which created much shrieking and crying and hugging. Weird. The pledge season in the Fall was unsettling, we heard strange sounds from the basement including crying. This was over 30 yrs ago, but I don’t think much has changed in Greek life.

message 31: by Paul (last edited Feb 07, 2020 02:31AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Instead of/alongside reading the book listen to the playlist:

The pivotal scene of the novel - The Rut - takes place to the quite brilliant:

carissa | 98 comments I still know some of those Frat guys and I have to say, in the Frat's defense, they really do take care of one another. As a group they've bailed out business's, paid for rehab, etc... and I know if any one of them is in a jam, all they have to do is call and things are sorted. I know one friend who lost his passport, an unknown place and within hours he had a place to stay, cash, etc... and not from brothers that they know personally, it's like a hot-line or something.

Great playlist, Paul! I remember the first time I hear Downward Spiral. I'm still not over it. Perfection.

Yes, Neil and Paul-let's make it a sub-section of the Fug Lit Genre! Meandering moralizing is a kind of fugliness, for sure.

message 33: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Although on the frat side: if the English equivalent is public schools, then it does create an old boys network (*) that carries on for the rest of people's careers and lives. Which is great for those in it - but then to the disadvantage for those not. I've seen it operate at places I've worked with Old Etonians (who also monopolise our choice of Prime Minister). It probably also works with Oxbridge as well but I'm in that bubble so don't see it.

(* doesn't seem to work so well for girls' schools - unfortunately)

Matthew 5:46-47 springs to mind.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5232 comments Yes to NiN (albeit given your 1 star views on the actual book would The Wretched have fitted better)and yes to your last post Paul.

message 35: by Paul (last edited Feb 07, 2020 11:17AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Last - and only - time you went to a NiN concert you actually walked out before the end (to beat the rush and because, I quote, 'it's a bit loud isn't it, this isn't like Showaddywaddy') and missed one of the highlights of my concert watching career - the encore where, as usual, they covered Cars, but this time the great Gary Numan himself turned up,

This is that moment (you were on the tube)....

Robert | 1970 comments It’s a bit of a deviation but I have a lot of mixed feelings with NiN- I like them!!! But reznor’s attempt at sounding depressing verges into theatrics, which clouds my liking of them. I thought Depeche Mode were better at balancing beats with sadness

message 37: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Fair. Although as someone whose favourite band for much of my youth was Judas Priest I rather like theatrics in my music.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5232 comments Well they challenge the status quo (unsubtle clue to who Paul really liked) and their music sometimes takes unexpected “one hundred and eighty” degree turns and definitely hits the bullseye (more subtle clue to his other favourite).

But I think the over the top nihilism of NiN and equating it with artistic merit fits Paul’s current literary views also.

message 39: by Paul (last edited Feb 08, 2020 01:55AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments Yes I would say my favourite bands evolution went

ABBA-Darts-Blondie-Status Quo-Nirvana-music stopped the day Kurt died

(perhaps Radiohead except they of course got worse as time went on and only made two decent albums Pablo Honey and, not quite as good, The Bends. Then aliens replaced them with another band. The David Mitchell of music)

Hysterical nihilism is indeed my favourite literary genre. I am pretty sure Thomas Bernhard would have loved NiN.

Robert | 1970 comments He probably would have my musical evolution: rave - alternative- 60’s - post punk - alternative- whatever rough trade send me each month

message 41: by Ella (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
So I read the book finally. And I am sorry to say, I can't add anything or help anyone figure out why the current day story is there. It did nothing for me. I also found the main character to be just a bad friend/girlfriend - and devious! She snuck around the whole book. I'm not sure why this is listed beyond the blurbs about it being "topical" etc. Paul's link starts off w/ a discussion of how timely it is, but the book itself doesn't do much for anyone. I thought the men were given more nuance than the women overall, which is odd for a book written by a woman.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5232 comments I am getting to this next - the last of my RoC reads. I had assumed the book was feminist but it seems like most of you are interpreting it as the reverse. So my question is why did Tramp publish it (as I think their only fiction of the year and also I think the book they might have been hoping would take advantage of the new Booker rules on Irish publishers for which they lead the successful campaign). They are as I am sure most people know very active in feminism

For example their famous refusal to read any submission headed •Dear Sirs” or this

message 43: by Ella (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
I actually really do wonder if I missed some big sign or something, and I'm very grateful that all you smart people also read this, or I'd have been sure I read the wrong book or read it the "wrong way." I'm pretty confused about this publisher and this book, and the only answer I can think of is "timely."

message 44: by Paul (new) - rated it 1 star

Paul Fulcher (fulcherkim) | 8482 comments I think it was intended as feminist. But that's not what she ended up writing because the plot doesn't work.

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5232 comments I am 80% of the way through this and as baffled as the rest of you

Tramp Press themselves describe the book on their website as a “lyrical yet eyes-wide-open account of the epic clash between fraternities’ time-honoured ‘right to party’ and young women’s demands for sexual safety and respect”

Like all of you I am surprised at how "balanced" this clash is and how, if anything, its the fraternities that come out as the victims.

At the risk of evoking Godwin’s Law, I am tempted to compare the book to a Polish press publishing a book by a Polish author of the epic clash between Nazi German’s "right to lebensraum” and the Polish nations demands for self-determination and frontier integrity …….. an account in which the main storyline consists of Poles drugging German soldiers and actively encouraging them to violate the border.

message 46: by Ella (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
Gumble's Yard wrote: "At the risk of evoking Godwin’s Law..."

You sidestepped that very well! ;-)

I'm somewhat relieved to hear that everyone continues to be puzzled by this one. If I'd read it alone, I would have convinced myself that *I* was the problem rather than the book, and then I'd have done examination of what sort of feminist I can be if I can't even see the feminism in this great book...yadda yadda yadda...


Now watch it win or something .

Gumble's Yard - Golden Reviewer | 5232 comments I am proud I resisted the temptation!

My full review is here:

I think I liked a little more than you/Neil/Paul but my cricitisms/issues/negative observations were much the same as you all I think.

I do draw a link in my review which I wonder added to its appeal to Tramp. Plus add a comment from the Irish Independent which I think exactly sums up the bafflement with which those of us in the UK approach the whole Greek/fraternity/sorority thing

And as for "watch it win" - its already won a significantly better known prize than the RoC.

message 48: by Ella (last edited Feb 19, 2020 02:48AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ella (ellamc) | 1019 comments Mod
Gumble's Yard wrote: "I am proud I resisted the temptation!

I do draw a link in my review which I wonder added to its appeal to Tramp. Plus add a comment from the Irish Independent which I think exactly sums up the bafflement with which those of us in the UK approach the whole Greek/fraternity/sorority thing

And as for "watch it win" - its already won a significantly better known prize than the RoC...."

That's a Canadian Prize. It doesn't count ;-)

KIDDING, for those who didn't grasp the wink or lack humor/humour.

I will refrain from telling you all the one good joke I've ever made up b/c it will get me in more trouble, but I think it's funny. Anyway, back to Gumble's thoughts:

I actually think the book is balanced to some extent - but in such a surface way and not in a way that truly speaks to the issues it dives clumsily into. Partly it was just not a book I liked much, but the thing that bugs me about it is not really the fault of this book, more of this time.

I want, and I'm sure many other people do too, a really good book that truly delves into this current climate and moment well, in a deep sense, and somehow makes it all a little more comprehensible or at least speaks to the heart of the matters.

I do comprehend the climate and the anger of women the world over. I've been a woman for a while now, and I get it. Certainly a fair amount of my conflicted feelings come from my age/era/temperament. OTOH, I speak to loads of women, and I keep experiencing the same thing: a sort of quasi-whisper after a good look round to make sure nobody overhears, then something totally rational comes out of the woman's mouth, but we're both afraid to fully attend to it because it doesn't fit perfectly within the proscribed lines of "being a woman/feminist in 2020."

My dearest friend and I found ourselves alone in her house late at night recently -- whispering about the current moment and all of the ways to "step in it" if you're not careful. It was truly absurd, the whispering bit, alone in a massive single-family dwelling where nobody could have heard us if we were screaming. That moment speaks to how scary it can be to be someone like one of us yet not be completely in lock step with the "choir."

I'm a bisexual, biracial nitwit who teaches "how to be not a racist class" (not it's real title) in my "free" time. The whole point of the program, of which my class is one small introductory part, is to teach people to think with intersectionality front and center. She teaches women's studies for a living, as a tenured professor, at one of Pennsylvania's finest institutes of higher education (uni). and she is is a married lesbian who has never taken me to see a movie (sorry - film) that lacked subtitles in over 30 years of friendship.

I don't think you could find two women who at least tick the boxes of the "types of women" who are supposed to be most furious, and in some ways we are, but in others we see that this all good/all evil thing is, well it's not sustainable for one, and it's not achieving what needs to be achieved - for men and/or women.

So, that's the book I wanted. Not some simpering college student pretending to be Homer and fawning over her teacher, who is too timid or stupid to stand up to people she admires. I need a real woman's considered wisdom! Anyone can be a smart-a$$ed college kid. I'm sure we've all done it at least once.

Anyway, as I step off my soapbox, I realize I'm about to be slammed, and I can take that, but I will not pretend this book answers or even asks the questions.

It's not her fault - she wrote the book she wrote, and bless her, as my Da would say. What I don't like is the book pretending to be what it isn't. While every book published seems to be the "greatest book that speaks to this moment." I think I care more with this one b/c I want and need this one more than some others.

...At least this week.

I'll leave all that, since it was therapeutic if nothing else, but I forgot about Mary Gaitskill's novella: This Is Pleasure !

I don't agree with her viewpoint completely (or even mostly? Not sure) but someone commented on my "review" of the novella just today/yesterday, which prompted me to look up the interview also published by the NYer:

Even better is this interview:

While I don't know that she "answers" anything, she does speak to the ability of fiction to even speak about this stuff.

back to top